4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

| February 7, 2008

It’s been called a wave, but something with “neo” or “realism” in the title might be more appropriate. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, and now, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days–these are the celebrated films of the new Romanian cinema.
Boldly naturalistic and steeped in the traditions of verité, these critical darlings and festival faves recall, with every unvarnished frame, the spirit of Vittorio De Sica and his canonized contemporaries. Yet look closer, and you’ll see the real tie that binds two international film movements across 50 years of time and hundreds of miles of space. It’s not just loose plotting and stark, unglamorous aesthetics that they share, but something richer and more intangible: a beating heart pumping the blood of social outrage. At their core, these are all political films, concerned, as were the Italian neo-realists, with the plight of the downtrodden working class. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu forged an endless, lumbering path through the tangled red tape of Romania’s ailing healthcare system. Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest raised and let linger uncomfortable questions about complacency, historical revisionism, and what constitutes a revolution.
And here, at last, is Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which takes dead aim at an oppressive government and the lose-lose situations forced upon those living under it. Taken together, the three films form something of a polemical trilogy–and, as the last chapter, Mungiu’s effort paradoxically offers both the bleakest and the most hopeful vision of the culture it daringly savages.
In its epic long takes, natural lighting, and general lack of music or non-diegetic sound, 4 Months, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, staunchly adheres to the stylistic palette of its heralded predecessors. What’s more, like its Romanian cousins, the film takes place over a single 24-hour period, its perspective tightly locked on the day-long trials and tribulations of one or two face-in-the-crowd characters. The unlucky, unlikely star of Mungiu’s insular narrative is Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a young university student with a rather serious problem on her hands. It’s 1987, two years before the fall of communism in Romania, and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is grappling with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. Frightened and (almost willfully) helpless, she shifts the burden of responsibility to Otilia, her roommate, who steps up to the task of arranging for her an illegal, backdoor abortion. Nothing comes for free or goes quite as planned, and by day’s end, both women will have endured horrors they were scarcely prepared for. Yet it’s Otilia, selflessly risking life, limb, and imprisonment to help her friend, who ends up sacrificing the most in the name of compassionate, unwavering devotion.
An episodic nightmare staged with you-are-there immediacy, Mungiu’s harrowing drama immerses us in the hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment complications of its heroine’s ordeal. As with Lazarescu, it’s an exercise in compelled empathy: we see and hear only what Otilia does, sharing her awful experience, virtually feeling her suffering. There’s an increasing absurdity to the various obstacles, misunderstandings, and traumatic consequences that she faces; hotel reservation mishaps and an untimely, uncomfortable family dinner suggest not just the folly of bureaucracy, but also the cruelly ironic hand of fate. Yet if 12:08 was a black comedy and Lazarescu was often mistaken for one, 4 Months is unlikely to inspire anything remotely resembling amusement. It’s fear that drives the film, hanging over it like a dark cloud, passing quietly across Otilia’s eyes as she soldiers through her personal Day from Hell. A pervading mood of deep anxiety colors every scene, fueled by dangers both overt (a coldly menacing, sleazeball doctor) and abstract (the constant, very real threat of getting caught). Mungiu even manages to ratchet up some genuine, white-knuckle suspense through telltale details like an uncovered pocketknife, a carefully “forgotten” ID, and the mere, unnerving sense that someone is trailing Otilia through the dark, trash-littered alleys she wanders through. This has to be some kind of first: neo-realist polemic by way of dread-infused horror movie.
Lacking the marathon running time and tedious repetition of Lazarescu, and the unbalanced, two-act structuring of 12:08, 4 Months proves to be the most conventionally satisfying of the Romanian Trilogy, the most inherently movie-ish. Yet it’s also the most disarmingly humanistic of the three, concerned less with scoring allegorical points than it is with paying tribute to feminine solidarity in the face of a repressive, patriarchal regime. “Pro-choice” in more ways than one, the film puts the power of action into its heroine’s hands, letting her decisions shape the narrative. Unlike old man Lazarescu, who was an anonymous, passive non-character, Otilia is no helpless victim. As portrayed by revelatory newcomer Anamarie Marinca, she’s resourceful, headstrong, and forgiving–a survivor and a freedom fighter. Marinca plays her as a woman swallowing all of her anger, fear, and vulnerability whole, burying it just long enough to get herself and Gabita through the longest night of their respective lives. It’s a fierce performance–the personal and the political feverishly united in a lone, weary figure–and it lends the film an unmistakable feminist slant.
Otilia loses nearly everything by the exhausting end of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days–her friendship and her relationship, her innocence if not her composure, her very faith in mankind if her not her sanity. Not even De Sica had the heart to leave his characters grappling with such a grim reality, yet there may be a sliver of hope in Mungiu’s naggingly ambiguous coda. Political cinema has to be driven by the possibility–nay, the promise–of change. In Romania, Ceausescu’s reign of terror ended when the young and the angry finally stood up against him. When Olivia turns to us in that final, lingering moment, is it resignation in her eyes or the fires of rebellion, burning faint but growing stronger? Maybe you have to lose everything before you can set the gears of revolution into inexorable motion.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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